Let me start by saying I am not a professional baker. I have never been to culinary school; I’ve never even taken a cooking class. But baking is one of my most favorite things to do. It relieves stress, lightens my mood, and just flat out makes me happy! In fact, I would love nothing more than to open my own little bakery and get up every morning, put on my apron, and surround myself with butter, flour, and sugar!
But it wasn’t always so. Baking, especially when you’re just getting started, can be tricky and overwhelming. Mix, bake, enjoy. The steps seem so simple, yet there are so many ways things can go wrong – undermixed, overbaked, overbeaten… Too few eggs and your ingredients fail to emulsify, leaving you with a crumbly or chunky result. Overbeat your batter, and suddenly you have crumbling cookies or over-aerated dough. Over knead your bread and it’s too hard to enjoy. And if you miss an ingredient, misread your recipe, or skip a step, forget it!
Yes, there are certainly challenges to baking. But with patience and a little guidance, baking really can be fun and enjoyable. And lets not forget rewarding! There is just nothing better than pulling a soft, flaky loaf of bread, or a warm, gooey batch of cookies, or a moist, buttery cake, made by your own two hands, out of your oven to share with people you love. For me, baking is absolutely an act of love… every cookie, every muffin, every loaf.
So let’s get crackin’!!
First and foremost, you need to think of a baking recipe like the way you would look at a chemistry equation. You must use the correct ingredient in the precise amount and at the right time to produce the desired result. Now obviously, using blueberries instead of blackberries isn’t a recipe for disaster. But not measuring out your ingredients or substituting fats can be. You wouldn’t walk into a chemistry lab and change the way your experiment is designed and expect to have the correct outcome. The same is so with baking. There’s nothing wrong with experimentation, but don’t do it on a recipe you expect to serve your friends and family tonight.
It is also very important to read the whole recipe before you begin. It’s just like reviewing the playbook before the big game. Not only do you need to make sure you have enough of all the necessary ingredients, as well as all the called-for equipment, but you want to be certain you understand any timing requirements. Does the oven need to be preheated or turned on as the pan goes in the oven? Does your stone need to be preheated or cool? Will you need to allow time for a dough to rest, rise, or be refrigerated? And pay attention to any ingredients that might require quick action, like baking soda, which requires you to bake right away to get the proper rise.
Next, temperature is very important when baking. We’re not just talking about the number on your oven, either. Some recipes call for ingredients to be in a certain state or at a certain temperature for them to fulfill their destiny in your baked goodies. The temperature of an ingredient can cause it, and those around it, to behave differently. Butter is a great example to use here. A recipe may call for cold butter, which means you’re going to pull it straight out of the frig and cut it into your dry ingredients (more on that in Techniques and Terminology). This will evenly distribute fat throughout your dough, without making it runny like a cake batter, and leave room for the air pockets that make pie crust and pastry fluffy and flaky. Or it might say to use softened butter, which is not the same as melted. Softened butter should give easily to the touch but should not squish and fall apart under your finger. The best way to soften butter is to leave it out on the counter for 30-45 minutes before you begin baking. Softened butter can still be mixed until smooth (or creamed), like in cookie dough, but using it in more of a solid state allows for those same pockets of air, which will make a fluffier rather than denser cookie. And melted butter is just what it sounds like. I prefer to use a butter warmer (a tiny, heavy-bottomed saucepan). It heats the butter quickly and evenly without scorching (if you’re cooking over low heat) and without that horribly messy butter explosion that happens when you overheat it in the microwave (if you do use the microwave, heat, covered, on the lowest setting in small increments. You don’t want to lose part of your butter to an explosion). This is now a liquid fat, and will do nothing for rise. Eggs, unless stated differently in the recipe, should be brought to room temperature before using. It is also important to note that if you’re working with warm ingredients (like melted chocolate), eggs need to be tempered to avoid being scrambled by the heat (see Techniques and Terminology).
So to sum up…
Become a little familiar with your ingredients, equipment, and techniques (our Baking 101 series is a great place to start). Next, read the WHOLE recipe, beginning to end, at least once before getting started. Pay attention to any timing or temperature requirements as you’re reading. Last, but most certainly not least, HAVE FUN!! It may seem like work, especially the first couple times you might be fumbling through a recipe, but I promise you the rewards are worth the effort! Now baby baker… LET’S BAKE!!